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Money talked, Kobe walked: pros [2004-09-05]

Tracy Connor [New York Daily News]
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EAGLE, Colo. – A civil settlement in the Kobe Bryant rape case hasn’t been announced, but the young woman who dropped criminal charges against the basketball star must already know how big her payday will be, legal experts told the Daily News.

It’s inconceivable that the accuser’s lawyers would have agreed to abandon the prosecution – their best leverage – without some sort of handshake deal on how much Bryant will cough up to make his legal troubles vanish, civil litigators agreed.

“It would have been incredibly stupid of them not to pin that down. They would be at the mercy of Bryant’s lawyers,” said Richard Emery, a prominent civil attorney in Manhattan.

“There was an expression of willingness to pay a minimum, if not an exact amount … a wink and a nod that she’ll be taken care of.”

The woman’s lawyers, local attorney John Clune and Atlanta hot shot Lin Wood, have denied there were any negotiations, much less a formal agreement to dispose of the federal lawsuit before their client pulled out of the criminal case.

But that may be because such a pact would raise ethical questions and allegations of extortion.

“You would have to be very careful because if prosecutors got word of a deal, it would smack of obstruction of justice,” said Peter DeFilippis, who has handled suits against high-profile figures such as Sean (P. Diddy) Combs.

The bizarre semiapology issued by Bryant – which was handed out to reporters by Wood after Wednesday’s dismissal – was the best evidence that the two sides had resolved the biggest issues in the civil matter: dollars and cents.

Bill Keating, a lawyer in Denver, said the wording of the statement may have been designed to ensure Bryant’s liability insurance covers some of the settlement costs.

“If you look at Bryant’s statement, it basically says, ‘I didn’t intend to assault her,’ and that may set up a circumstance where his insurance company will have to pay,” Keating said.

Legal analysts said it’s likely Bryant will fork over a sum in the low-seven figures.

“He’ll pay a lot of money to make it go away – somewhere between $2.5 million and $5 million. More than that is extortion and less than that isn’t worth it,” said Manhattan attorney Ben Brafman.

Given Bryant’s phenomenal wealth – he recently signed a $136 million contract with the L.A. Lakers – that might seem low.

But experts pointed out that under the law, the accuser wasn’t likely to get more than that from a jury and she’s loath to have more of her dirty laundry – her sex life, stints in rehab, suicide attempts – brought into open court.

For Bryant, giving up a few million is well worth it because as soon as he dispenses with the rape case, he can begin rehabilitating his image and collecting lucrative endorsement deals that would dwarf any payout.

Since his arrest 14 months ago, Bryant has lost $6 million in deals with McDonald’s and Nutella that were not renewed.

“We have not had one single client show interest in Kobe Bryant in the last 14 months, and we sign talent for more than 100 companies,” said Jeff Chown of the Marketing Arm, an entertainment and sports consulting firm in Dallas.

While marketers say Bryant may never again hawk Happy Meals, they think many companies, even Fortune 500 firms, will come knocking once the whiff of scandal has faded. Even NFL linebacker Ray Lewis, who beat a murder rap, is raking in big bucks as a product pitchman.

Bryant, who enjoyed a squeaky-clean image until June 2003, “is still very, very marketable … and he’s still a great player,” said Robert Tuchman, president of TSE Sports and Entertainment, a New York marketing company.

“You’re going to have companies testing the waters, probably next spring,” Tuchman said. “It’s going to take six to 12 months for him to get back into the ball game.”